Somalis Arrive in Emporia With Tuberculosis

Mike Shields, Topeka Capital-Journal, November 25, 2007

When hundreds of Somali refugees began showing up to work at the meatpacking plant, nurses Lori Torres and Renee Hively were among the first to get to know the exotic, new arrivals.

“We got notified a day in advance that 70 Somalis were being transferred from a (Tyson Foods) plant in Nebraska,” Hively recalled. “That 70 soon grew into 400, seemingly overnight.”

“We literally had droves in our waiting room, waiting to see a public health official,” Torres said.

Torres is the case manager for about 160 Somalis in Emporia who have been diagnosed with latent tuberculosis. Hively is her supervisor at the Flint Hills Community Health Center, which also serves as the Lyon County public health department.

State health officials say the influx of refugees to Emporia could have produced a calamity. Instead, thanks in no small part to Torres and Hively, the situation has been a model for dealing with unforeseen circumstances.

“What could have been an ultimate public health crisis has really just been an increase in public health work,” said Phil Griffin, director of tuberculosis control and prevention for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

Kansas usually has about 3,000 cases of latent tuberculosis a year. “Latent” means the disease isn’t contagious and responds to medication. Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection that most commonly attacks the lungs. In its active state it is communicable and deadly.

It has been largely eradicated in the United States, western Europe and other developed regions. But it remains widespread in Africa and elsewhere around the globe, killing 1.5 million people in 2005, according to the World Health Organization.

Latent TB, if untreated, can become active TB.

Quick and flexible

Before the Somalis began arriving in Emporia, the local health department tracked about 30 latent cases a year. Now Torres manages about 200 cases, about 80 percent of which she said are afflicted Somalis. She also handles the cases of two patients with active TB, one of whom is Somali.

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Griffin said the number of tuberculosis cases reported in Kansas this year will increase from 8 percent to 10 percent attributable to what is happening in Lyon County. In 2006, about 60 percent of the state’s tuberculosis cases were in foreign-born individuals, he said.

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Hively said when tuberculosis cases were less common, each of the department’s nurses divided the case management responsibilities, but with the surge it was decided Torres would take them all, in essence creating a full-time tuberculosis nurse position.

They also persuaded the clinic’s managers to hire a full-time Somali translator.

Jobs at Tyson

Chuck Torres, Lori’s husband, was working as a health nurse at the Tyson Foods beef processing plant when the Somalis arrived. After years in refugee camps with limited skills and poor nutrition, many had trouble adjusting to the rigorous demands of meat plant work.

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In February 2006, Tyson closed two of its plants in Nebraska. Among the nearly 1,700 affected workers were the Somali refugees who were offered replacement jobs at the Emporia plant.

In the decades since it was founded, Emporia, first because of the railroad and then because of its meat plant, has been a magnet for immigrants. Mexicans came for the railroad work and a couple of generations later new waves from Mexico, Central America and Southeast Asia came to work at the meat plant.

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An article posted Nov. 3 on the Emporia Gazette Web site about a state grant to Catholic Community Services to help the Somalis settling in Emporia drew scores of angry, anonymous reader reactions, including this one:

“Emporia is going to be its own 3rd world country before long because of all the damn, bleeding hearts.”

“They came post 9/11. They’re black and they’re Muslim,” Hively said, describing some of the hostility demonstrated toward the Somalis. “Emporia didn’t have many black people before. This is a small town.”

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The total Somali population in Emporia is thought to be between 750 and 1,000, and the expectation is that the number will continue to grow as word of jobs spreads to Somali enclaves in Utah, Minnesota, Maine and Ohio.

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